Recently my friend Mike Ghouse wrote an article promoting a kind of interfaith Christmas. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mike-ghouse/interfaith-christmas-making-god-boundless_b_2347856.ht) Well intentioned, but also deeply problematic. Mike wants to reinforce Christmas as a civil religious holiday for a religiously plural society. I think we’d all be better off if it returned to being the cult celebration exclusively for Christians.
I will admit that its easy for non-Christians to get on board with Christmas. Jesus, as Mike points out, taught and did many good things that most humans admire. He had a vision people of many religions can share. Moreover, down the centuries Christian celebration in the West has taken over from early European religions and cults all sorts of colorful and nearly universal religious impulses: the victory of light over darkness, the changing of the seasons, the rebirth of life and hope in the midst of death, the struggle with oppressive and bloody minded governments, God’s presence in the commonplace of human life.
Particularly in the American tradition we have added massive public rituals of the true American religion: buying and consuming. And less important (but critical to maintaining some sense of self-respect) we Americans have painted the whole of Christmas with the warm colors of inclusion and social solidarity.
At Christmas, as Mike wants us to, we Christians want to make sure everyone is included in our celebrations. And since those celebrations center on eating and gift exchanges we go out of our way at Christmas to provide food and toys for the less fortunate, needy, hurt, grieving, and so on.
Where ancient Germanic tribes hung evergreens with lights and prayed for the sun to return and restore their dying world we Americans try to heal the winter of our discontent by restoring our waning society with the purchase of ever more trivial and brightly colored consumables, praying that a “season of giving” (meaning good retail sales) will restore a dying economy and bring us all together again.
So Christmas has it all: the birthday of a profound moral teacher and leader, the rich symbolism of a dozen old mythological systems, the enacting of American core values, and the glossy patina of American excess all in one holiday. What is there not for everyone to like?
But perhaps you can see how far this all is from the birth of Jesus. The fact that we have attached to Christmas a whole constellation of mythical elements and their rich meanings for human life can eventually overwhelm the scandalous truth at the center of the incarnation, and in America it largely has.
So let’s get to the core of Christmas, and ask whether what it is all about can really be shared by people of any religion or no religion at all.
It begins with the assertion that Mary was made “with child” by the Holy Spirit. And that this child will bear certain royal titles which Christians assert mean that he (Jesus) is God. By the time John’s gospel is written Jesus is “the Word” by and through whom all things were created. Christmas has one central meaning: Jesus is God.
Can Muslims buy this? Not for an instant. The Qur’an is absolutely clear that God neither begets nor is begotten. Islam denies precisely what Christians celebrate at Christmas. Muslims may celebrate the birth of Jesus as a prophet, but that isn’t Christmas – that is a Muslim festival. And, it must be added, if Christian claims about Jesus are true, then central Muslim claims about the Qur’an cannot be true. There can be no definitive (final) revelation of God’s will and nature after God’s own coming into the world in human form.
Beyond the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, and his status as “true God” could one not note that Asian religions recognize multiple human appearances by the divine? Is Jesus not one in a series of manifestations of the divine qualities?
No. The Christian claim at Christmas is set in an understanding of history that has no repeatable events – and is incompatible with the understanding of history underlying the Hindu worldview. Jesus isn’t one of many, he is the only one, unique in the history of humankind and indeed the universe. Knowing he is God is knowing that all the other claims to be God incarnate (by any of the host of avatars of Vishnu or manifestations of Shiva) are lesser claims by lesser beings. When the wisemen from the East bow down to present gifts to Jesus they simply point to final assertion that God incarnate has only one historical instance, and thus “only one name” to which every power on heaven and earth will bow. All those other avatars, appearances, prophets, teachers, gods? They will bow to Jesus, because Jesus alone is God. And of course this is a problem. The claims of Hinduism exclude the possibility that the claim of Christianity is true.
Perhaps I don’t even need to detail how the fundamentals of Jesus birth, and teaching, almost completely contradict the American civil Christmas celebration of excessive consumption and material wealth. The only redemptive, and thus redeemable aspect of American civil religion is its belief that everyone belongs around the manger: that Jesus wishes to include everyone. Yet even then the conditions for inclusion will not suit most Americans. The claims that Jesus makes on human life are too radical for most of us.
This all may sound quite horrible. Indeed imperialistic. Unless one realizes that no church, no denomination, no Christian leader, and certainly no country can or ever will adequately represent the claims of Jesus on human life. Neither the Christian who kneels at the manger, or the non-Christian bystander, should ever kneel before a mere human being or human institution again. If Jesus’ birth excludes a number of alternative religious claims it also excludes a whole host of essentially political claims.
So perhaps the exclusive claim made at Christmas has a positive meaning after all. At the least it excludes all the oppressive claims of every person, state, or institution to demand our ultimate loyalty or obedience.
More importantly belief that Jesus’ birth is the birth of God incarnate, precisely by excluding the truth claims of certain other religions, preserves for all religious claims the possibility of being true. When Christianity, or any other religion, subordinates its claim to be true to some generic religion of good heartedness created by commercial and political interests, or even by the religious interests of some particularly “inclusive” religious vision, then it loses its capacity to offer anything of distinctive value to human society. The same is true of the claims of other religions as well.
This doesn’t mean that inter-religious dialogue must be a zero sum game. It simply recognizes that humans presently lack the capacity, and may forever lack the capacity, to reconcile some apparently irreconcilable claims. This inability may push us on one hand to find things about which we can agree, values found in all religions for example. But hopefully it will also push us (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) to continue to hold fast to our distinctive claims and their distinctive cult celebrations. These need to be preserved against the homogenization and marginalization of contemporary American culture for that day when their truth alone may be the only thing that saves us from both human oppression and human folly.
So my non-Christian friends: you are invited to Christmas dinnner, and we’ll put a gift for you under the tree of lights. But I won’t ask you to kneel at the manger, because we do so not to respect a worthy teacher, or honor a prophet of God, but to worship God incarnate.